An exported kinase family mediates species-specific erythrocyte remodelling and virulence in human malaria

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The most severe form of human malaria is caused by Plasmodium falciparum. Its virulence is closely linked to the increase in rigidity of infected erythrocytes and their adhesion to endothelial receptors, obstructing blood flow to vital organs. Unlike other human-infecting Plasmodium species, P. falciparum exports a family of 18 FIKK serine/threonine kinases into the host cell, suggesting that phosphorylation may modulate erythrocyte modifications. We reveal substantial species-specific phosphorylation of erythrocyte proteins by P. falciparum but not by Plasmodium knowlesi, which does not export FIKK kinases. By conditionally deleting all FIKK kinases combined with large-scale quantitative phosphoproteomics we identified unique phosphorylation fingerprints for each kinase, including phosphosites on parasite virulence factors and host erythrocyte proteins. Despite their non-overlapping target sites, a network analysis revealed that some FIKKs may act in the same pathways. Only the deletion of the non-exported kinase FIKK8 resulted in reduced parasite growth, suggesting the exported FIKKs may instead support functions important for survival in the host. We show that one kinase, FIKK4.1, mediates both rigidification of the erythrocyte cytoskeleton and trafficking of the adhesin and key virulence factor PfEMP1 to the host cell surface. This establishes the FIKK family as important drivers of parasite evolution and malaria pathology.

Journal details

Volume 5
Issue number 6
Pages 848-863
Available online
Publication date